After weeks of media attention and years of legal battles, on Monday it was confirmed that the eviction of Dale Farm will take place in the week commencing 19th September. Around 400 people face eviction from the site, comprised of some 86 families and 100 children.
After a 10-year legal battle with residents of Dale Farm, Basildon Council have authorised the eviction. Tony Ball, leader of the Conservative-run council, said, “We have always made it clear that this was a last resort for us, and it is with reluctance that we have been forced to take direct action to clear the site.”
While, the travellers legally own the land, they lack the planning permission for their caravans and chalets. A fact which led Mr. Ball to add, “You or I wouldn’t be able to build a house without planning permission. It’s just a question of equality and being treated the same.”
One can only wonder how Mr. Ball can claim this is an action of equality, when the group being evicted are perhaps the most routinely discriminated against in the UK. A YouGov poll published in January this year found that around 60% of Gypsies and Irish Travellers believed they were targeted by at least ‘some’ form of discrimination – a statistic that suggests these groups receive the most discrimination in the UK.
It’s my feeling that instead of some form of twisted equality, this eviction displays a complete and utter disregard for this community’s lifestyle and their human rights. As the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) suggested, this eviction would disproportionately affect family life and create hardship. In fact, CERD subsequently implored the Government to suspend the eviction, ‘until culturally appropriate accommodation is identified and provided.’
Similarly, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, warned there was a great risk of human rights violations if the 400 people were forcibly removed. Hammarberg claims, “If they go ahead with the eviction that would be very immature and unwise.”
Here, both CERD and Hammarberg raise important concerns. This eviction is not only morally wrong, but it jeopardises a large number of families and serves to underline the frankly appalling protection, or lack of, afforded to travellers in the UK.
A Question of Accommodation
Having said this, the Dale Farm case brings to the fore a long ignored set of truths in the UK. Gypsies and Irish Travellers, despite being recognised as ethnic groups and protected by the Race Relations Act, see their cultural and social needs frequently ignored by local councils and the Goverment.
There is ample evidence to support this claim. In 2006, the Common Ground report (CRE) suggested that, “Only a quarter of local authorities explicitly include Gypsies and Irish Travellers in their statutory race equality schemes.”
In terms of Dale Farm and the questions this case raises on the issue of accommodation, the Common Ground report claimed, “Only 34 per cent of local authorities have carried out an assessment of Gypsies’ and Irish Travellers’ needs for accommodation, and 28 per cent have no plans to do so.”
In response to this shocking finding, the previous government set a 2011 target for accommodation provision. However, a subsequent 2009 report by the EHRC found that only 13% more pitches were available. This highlighted the painfully slow progress made towards meeting these targets. In fact, the EHRC concluded that 83% of local authorities questioned were behind schedule for reaching this target by 2011. Noting, “At the current rate, it will take 18 years for local authorities in England to create enough permanent pitches.”
Even more tellingly, in terms of planning permission 90% of applications from Gypsies and Irish Travellers are initially rejected, compared to 20% from the rest of the population. A fact which led the EHRC to estimate that, “The entire Gypsy and Traveller population could be legally accommodated if as little as one square mile of land were allocated for sites in England.”
This all serves to underline the difficulties faced by Gypsies and Irish Travellers and raises a vital question as to why more isn’t being done to ensure these communities are accommodated in Britain. In terms of the Dale Farm eviction, while there may be legal justification, this eviction symbolises the tumultuous plight of these communities. In destabilising a strong community, living together seemingly peacefully, Basildon Council is acting without any sense of remorse or awareness of the repercussions their actions could have and in the process are displaying a complete misunderstanding of these communities.
Instead, one could argue that Basildon Council has chosen to portray these people as lawbreakers with total disregard for how society functions. But in reality, how much choice do these individuals and families have? With accommodation in short supply, planning permission hard to come by and embarrassing effort made by local authorities to address this, these communities are often left without option. In simple terms, ‘lawbreaking’ can become a means to survival.
In fact, these communities have no influence over the law. They are often poorly educated and have nobody to champion their rights and opinions. ‘Law’ is created around them and enforced upon them. Their thoughts aren’t taken on board or the impact on their lifestyles considered. Therefore, to ensure these communities are treated fairly within British society and given the best chance to prosper much more effort must be made to accommodate their needs. The ongoing ignorance towards them must cease and the recognition afforded to them as a racial group must be respected and appreciated by local authorities and the national government.
The Media Element
To do this, the importance of changing the national perception of these communities is one that cannot be undervalued. Whether it comes from national or local media, out of the mouths of politicians or the average Briton, ignorance and intolerance dictates common thoughts and feeling towards these communities, when in reality little is known of travellers and even more importantly few make any effort to think outside the prejudicial box.
It’s easy to illustate this point. On Friday, the Daily Mail published an article called – ‘Travellers plan to use their children as human shields’. From which the following passage is lifted –
“Aerial photos taken yesterday showed the occupants are turning the camp into a fortress, with watchtowers, barbed wire and hay bales and tyres that can be set alight.
High-pressure canisters that can be detonated have also been stockpiled. One activist, who declined to be named, said: ‘We will take whatever action is necessary to stop innocent people being left homeless. They’re not hurting anyone. We have chains and padlocks to lock ourselves to the concrete blocks. Children will form part of the human barricade.”
Obviously, we all known the Daily Mail isn’t particularly known for its politically correct and positive depiction of any minority group (understatement of the year!), but the language used here not only depicts these people as lawbreakers, but as heartless barbarians willing to put their childrens’ lives on the line.
The local press get in on the act too. An article in the Essex Echo was called – ‘Extremists signing up for struggle at Dale Farm eviction’. The term ‘extremist’ has undeniably become synonymous with terrorism and to a lesser extent the far right. Therefore, considering this contextual meaning it hardly seems acceptable to apply this word to this scenario, where individuals are fighting for the right to stay in their homes and like anyone plan to protect their property. Choosing to do so only fuels tensions between locals and these communities, which breeds misunderstanding, resentment and possible nasty confrontations.
While, I understand the pitfalls in plucking two media articles out to prove a point, in the case of Gypsies and Irish Travellers this pretty much sets the tone for the majority of coverage these group receive. Propaganda is rife, the misinformed is often the informed and ignorance is bliss. Take the recent hit TV show – My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, this show focused on the trials and tribulations of a few traveller families. Although, some might argue this show was harmless, the problem is that for the majority of Britons this is the only knowledge we have of these communities. And, when there is so little awareness it doesn’t take much for damaging and unfair opinions to be formed.
Attitudes Must Change
For this reason, the media should strive to offer greater access to positive individuals from traveller backgrounds. Instead of typical sensationalism, atypical rationale is needed and the media must rise to their responsibility to ensure the public’s opinion isn’t dictated by stories of polluting, impolite, disrespectful lawbreakers, but instead citizens wishing to live an alternative but equally justifiable lifestyle.
Whether or not the Dale Farm eviction happens, this case has brought the experiences of Gypsies and Irish Travellers to the public consciousness. As a result, it’s high time politicians also rose to the challenge. Too often politicians shirk at any mention of Gypsies and Irish Travellers, undoubtedtly fearful that seeming pro-Gypsy/Traveller is a vote-loser. They should seek to address this issue and go about ensuring these communities are treated correctly and respected in their own right.
If this happens, the general public will no longer have an excuse to disregard these individuals. In actuality, many could seek to learn more about these communities, that move among us but who we so immediately cast off as outsiders.
It’s my hope this case serves as a wake up call, and that accommodation provisions are improved, targets are hit and that watchdog organisations provide greater oversight of the portrayal of these communities in our media. If we do this, we could rid our country of one of the last acceptable forms of discrimination.
Dale Farm residents pleading for Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to stop eviction –